Review of The Right Foot of the Giant by Mark Young (Wellington: Bumper Books, 1999) in Landfall 201 (May 2001): 158-60.
Beware the onset of old-fartness in the reconstitution of cultural canons. Much as I enjoyed and celebrated the appearance of the Big Smoke anthology of New Zealand poems 1960-1975, it was not without a tremor or two of guilt, fear and shame that I recognised also its air of momentousness and was reminded of my own pretensions at the time. While avoiding the canonical earnestness of academic salvage (or, thank god, revision), wearing its excellent scholarship lightly, and for the most part avoiding the hagiographic, the book nonetheless (and unavoidably) reconstituted as cultural mass a disparate body of writing and activity that was often unaware of its own synergies at the time it was happening.
It was great to hear Mark Young reminiscing on the radio programme that Chris Bourke put together to mark the publication of Big Smoke. He sounded just the same as I remembered from Auckland in the ’60s. I was aware, though, that thirty-something years had passed, that during all of them Mark had been silent (to us) and living in Sydney – just as, during his time in the ’60s Auckland scene that revolved around the Kiwi Hotel, Barry Lett Galleries and the Wynyard Tavern, he had been distant from and pretty much unheard by the rest of New Zealand.
Most of the poetry activity that was going on in New Zealand during what will probably come to be known as ‘the Big Smoke years’ was not that interested in the rest of the country. It was certainly not much interested in ‘New Zealand literature’. There was no big statement involved in this – again, nothing hegemonic – it was not particularly anti-nationalist or cosmopolitan, though there were and are cosmopolitans among ‘us’. Largely through the combined agencies of music and politics, there was a surge of feeling connected to a global culture – not of being ‘influenced’ by, but of being part of, an international culture. It was happening on the cusp of modernism, and was as much about escaping modernism’s obscure sense of cultural quality control and anxiety as it was about engaging with political freedom movements and popular culture.
Memory without the assistance of any record more reliable than nostalgia is not going to produce a reliable account of what happened. At its worst, nostalgia will produce ‘memoir’, the kind of account that always trumps the play with a first person pronoun. Here’s mine – for what it’s worth, the best way I can find of connecting Mark Young’s voice on the radio last year with the ‘internationalism’ of ‘the Big Smoke years’, and the marvellous coincidence (not) of his poems finally getting published by Bumper Books – The Right Foot of the Giant.
My memories of Mark in Auckland are of poetry readings at Barry Lett Galleries and at the Wynyard Tavern. Dave Mitchell was part of a double act that combined the rhapsodic, the laconic and the hip. Wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, through which I still see art works by Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon, as though smoky nicotine were one of the cultural pigmentations of the ’60s; with lots of flagon red wine from the Henderson valley, drugs that were subculture rather than mainstream entertainment, and the jazz of Thelonious Monk (‘Round Midnight’), these occasions set my youthful benchmarks and probably gave me much of the life I’ve had. For which I am most grateful.
To be cool was the thing. Looking now at the books of poems I obsessively and anxiously hoarded during the ’60s and ’70s, I find Grove Press’s ‘Evergreen Book’ series, many of City Lights Books ‘Pocket Poet Series’, Totem Press in Association with Corinth Press. There are books in here that got buried later in the ’70s; they are LeRoi Jones, The Dead Lecturer, 1964 (whose cover photo of LeRoi is uncannily like the cover photo of Mark on The Right Foot of the Giant), LeRoi’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, 1961, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems of 1964 (in which, in ‘Personal Poem,’ he has lunch with LeRoi). In the shelf with them, also dusty, the first anguished, homoerotic novels of James Baldwin. One of my sons has my old heavy vinyl Bluenote recordings of Miles Davis, Hank Mobley and Thelonious.
In the same space of bookshelf archaeology, Editions Gallimard Poésies complètes of Jules Laforgue (‘Je m’ennuie, natal! Je m’ennuie, / Sans cause bien appréciable…’), and other fin-de-siècle French business, soon converged upon by the bracing intellectual ennui of mid-century existential flâneurs.
The atmosphere in Barry Lett’s at a ’60s poetry reading was full of male strut and posturing, but also a kind of homoerotic anxiety and grief. There was a cultural axis in the evenings which was knowing about the white hipster connection between Black American rhythms, the liberated subject (Frank O’Hara’s ‘I was walking along the street…’), and the suicidal, sophisticated ennui of French existentialism (‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ – Jean Paul Sartre in Huis Clos, epigraph to Mark’s poem ‘No exit’). Sounds weird now, but then it was as global as hip-hop is now.
And Mark Young was the moment’s guru in New Zealand. ‘In memoriam: Robert Desnos’ (1969) genuflects towards the French poet; in sharing a conversation about a woman the poet(s) may (or may not) have made love to, the poem has that tone of homoerotic conspiracy over the female sexual object that characterised much male writing then; the rhythms are the syncopated ones that black American poets found in bebop jazz; the poem’s subject is the fully disclosed, confessional, intimate first person of the poet himself.
Described like this, it sounds awful. It wasn’t – I guess it isn’t. In the case of ‘wasn’t’, and my own unstable memoir, the poem is still astonishingly of its time and place. I have no idea how it might read to someone who wasn’t there, who isn’t (now) in their mid fifties, and I’m not going to try and guess.
In these lines I can still hear LeRoi Jones’s poem ‘For Crow Jane (Mama Death’. As I heard it then. The elegant, intense swivel of rhythm, whose purpose is to be a precise choreographer of emotion, as well as to be funky. And there are the other rhythms, in the language, its neat riffs and chords of assonance, the casual virtuosity, the throwaway sense of coolness as a style.
This was such a distinct moment, and so short-lived – it was not the Beats of ’50s (though they are in there, they have become kind of naïve), and it was not yet what came along soon in the lyrics and music of Jim Morrison, and international solidarity against the war in Vietnam.
Nor am I talking about the jocular, music-hall poetry of the English ‘Merseyside’ poets, who were as unlike the white hipster thing as you could get – who wrote ‘Your finger, sadly, has a familiar ring about it’. Even though Mark wrote his own, almost counter-version, of the Adrian Henri roll-call of cultural icons, it’s interesting, now, to spot the differences – in Mark’s list are Tristan Tzara, Burroughs, Akira Kurosawa, ‘Charlie Mingus & LeRoi Jones’, Miles Davis, ‘Rimbaud, Verlaine & Baudelaire’, Jean Genet, Anaïs Nin, ‘Basho Cocteau Jean-Paul Belmondo’, ‘Diana Ross & The Supremes’, Frank O’Hara, Pierre Reverdy, Paul Eluard, Otis Redding, ‘Ray Charles & Terry Southern’, and so on – not a sign anywhere of the Anglo-Saxon heritage, nor, in any shape or form, of its colonial entrepot. Of the Beatles, only hipster Lennon gets the nod from Mark; the others might as well have been pantomime clowns.
Reading The Right Foot of the Giant is terrific, but it’s also terribly sad, because (on the memoir level) it reminds me of a cultural moment that was intense, brief, poised between a neurotic modernism about to implode and an onrush of popular culture into the mainstream, astonishingly specific in its international signifiers, precocious and posturing but also very cool, and now gone forever.
But not quite – because the people at Bumper Books, in their great wisdom, have rescued Mark’s part in the ‘moment’ for those of us who were sent unsteadily on our life’s path by it; and for those for whom this book should be a surprise and a revelation.